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Arthur Cantor; Theater Publicist Became a Successful Producer

April 11, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arthur Cantor, who became hooked on theater as a boy of 4 and grew up to become a Broadway press agent and eventually an astute and self-described penny-pinching producer, has died. He was 81.

Cantor, who produced such hits as "The Tenth Man," "All the Way Home" and "A Thousand Clowns," died Sunday in a New York City hospital after a heart attack.

Prolific if penurious, Cantor shied away from producing musicals, saying they were far too expensive. But he made his first Broadway investment in a musical--$2,000 in 1957--to the ire of his wife, who complained she bought margarine instead of butter and read castoff newspapers found in the subway while he threw money out the window. The show was "The Music Man"; the investment returned 20 to 1, and she never criticized his choices again.

Cantor produced about 100 plays, 50 of them in a single decade in London--reveling in the low production costs, low ticket prices and British dedication to theater, which he equated with going to church.

"The difference between London and New York production cost is staggering. Everything's cheaper here," he told The Times in a London interview in 1974.

Born in Boston, Cantor graduated from Harvard and served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1945, he landed a job with the Playwrights Co., working as publicist for such luminaries as Billy Rose.

Within a few years, he went independent, touting major successes, such as "Inherit the Wind" in 1955, and "The Most Happy Fella," "Long Day's Journey into Night" and "Auntie Mame" in 1956.

The little boy who was taken to the Yiddish theater by his mother when he was 4 finally ventured into producing because he was intrigued with Paddy Chayefsky's script, set in an Orthodox synagogue, about a young Jewish girl possessed by a demon.

"I knew theater was a terrible business to get involved in, but I figured if I failed I could be a press agent again," Cantor told Crain's New York Business in 1993.

"The Tenth Man," staged in 1959, was a sleeper hit and won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Cantor befriended Chayefsky and soon produced the playwright's next hit, "Gideon," as well as Tad Mosel's Pulitzer Prize-winning "All the Way Home" in 1961.

But Cantor never entirely gave up his work as a press agent. In the 1960s, he officially publicized such hits as "Folies Bergere," "Man of La Mancha" and "Waiting for Godot."

He publicized "A Little Family Business" on New York's Broadway in 1982 and then produced it the following year at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theater, starring Angela Lansbury and John McMartin.

Cantor never failed to add some press agent touches to boost his shows. In 1993, for "Beau Jest," for example, he designed an ad depicting the armless statue Venus de Milo stating "Two thumbs up?" and advertised such lines as "Last 356 performances" and " 'Beau Jest'--now and sort of forever."

Cantor had an ability to see a play's life beyond Broadway. Although his "On Golden Pond" did poorly in New York (he blamed critics) when it opened in 1979, it had a very profitable afterlife as an Academy Award-winning motion picture and in other theatrical productions.

He directed a couple of plays and in 1970 wrote a book about the production business, "The Playmakers." Partly in honor of his mother, who had been disappointed when his first play "The Tenth Man" was produced in English rather than Yiddish, Cantor helped produce a documentary about Yiddish theater in New York, "The Golden Age of Second Avenue."

Cantor is survived by two children, David and Jacqueline, and two sisters.

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